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  • The Best Possible Immigrants: International Adoption and the American Family by Rachel Rains Winslow
  • Kim Park Nelson
The Best Possible Immigrants: International Adoption and the American Family. By Rachel Rains Winslow. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. x + 312 pp. Cloth $45, e-book $45.

Transnational adoption became established as a form of child mass migration in the mid-twentieth century and has grown significantly since then: demographer Peter Selman estimates the total number of adoptee migrants to be approximately one million worldwide. Rachel Rains Winslow's monograph on the histories of some of these child migrants is timely, if not entirely focused on adoptees as immigrants. Winslow uses two of her six chapters to document domestic adoption policy within the United States' first century of child welfare practice, beginning in the mid-1800s, and on the development of the American adoptive parent as a valorized figure in the mid-1900s. The remaining four chapters examine the histories of Greek transnational adoption to the United States following World War II, the beginning of Korean American transnational adoption after the Korean War, and Vietnamese American transnational adoption during and after the Vietnam War. Considering the theme of adoption in the aftermath of armed conflict that runs through her case studies, Winslow could have examined transnational adoption as a particular form of postwar and Cold War immigration—a line of inquiry that has been pursued by several Asian Americanists, including myself. Instead, Winslow has chosen to emphasize volunteerism as a powerful force working with, or instead of, state actors [End Page 277] to initiate and expand overseas adoption schemes that have grown into today's global adoption industry.

In addition to emphasizing American volunteerism, Winslow argues that four paradigms—sometimes competing and sometimes overlapping—have shaped domestic and transnational policy and practice from the end of World War II to the post–Vietnam War era. These are consumerism, representing the interests of American adoptive parents; child welfare, reflecting social workers' investments in adoption outcomes; humanitarianism, representing the state's interest in how it is perceived on the international stage; and development, emerging from adoptee-sending nations' interests in economic recovery in the aftermath of war. Though Winslow applies her multi-paradigm approach more convincingly in some instances than others, it is certainly a useful way to understand the complex interplay of converging and competing interests across the history of transnational adoption. In addition, Winslow connects US domestic and international adoption policy histories, shedding light on how large-scale US transnational adoption practice was allowed to be started by unprofessionalized organizations and individuals with literally no experience or training in child welfare.

Transnational adoption scholarship is necessarily inter- and multidisciplinary. Winslow usefully pulls together adoption policy and culture as circular: one has great influence on the other. This is especially true in her examination of adoptive parent memoirs, through which white adoptive parents of the 1950s literally rewrote themselves as heroes, redefining a mode of family building that had hitherto been regarded as second class. However, Winslow's unwillingness to incorporate secondary sources from disciplines other than history, where most of the work on transnational adoption culture and policy has been published, is a weakness of this volume.

Despite the book's title, Winslow devotes very little attention to the discussion of transnational adoption within broader immigration debates and sometimes fails to connect her detailed histories to the present, or even to immigration policies that were put in place after the historical periods covered in the book. For instance, although Winslow discusses the situation of mixed-race "GI babies" in both South Korea and Vietnam at length, she does not follow through to the passage of the Amerasian Act of 1982 and later laws that allowed people with Cambodian, Laotian, Korean, Thai, or Vietnamese mothers and American fathers entry into the United States, leading to the eventual immigration of tens of thousands of individuals and families. In addition, Winslow's avoidance of the topic of war sometimes becomes confusing, especially in her chapter-long discussion of child welfare policy in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, where [End Page 278] she chooses to focus on the inability of American policy makers...


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